by Angelo Zinna
Not every photographer produces art and not every artist produces a story. The desire for self-expression, however, is often found as much in news publications as on the walls of galleries and to clearly distinguish where the sphere of journalism ends and artistic practice begins can be a bewildering task. For example, take a look at Gold and Silver, the exhibition now on display at the National Gallery of Canada presenting a collection of captivating images of the Californian Gold Rush, or at Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War on show at the Royal Collection Trust. The prints document defining historical eras but could easily be confused for well thought through fine art graphite drawings. Is it the museum context that is deceiving, or are we looking at something of higher value than a news report?
The gatekeepers of the art world have long considered the utilitarian purpose of non-fictional storytelling an obstacle for its entrance into their realm, but the recent recognition of the work of photojournalists as something moving, powerful and universal is beginning to change the trend. Pictures taken in combat zones are no longer exclusive to the cold-hearted news media. Since the early days of photojournalism, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the intentions of photographers have been observed and deconstructed in order to establish how their production should be labeled. Although the discussion has not seemed to have slowed down in recent years, the growing interest of gallerists and collectors toward works produced “in the field” is probably a sign that art can take the most unexpected shapes.
The categorization of photojournalism as a separate activity from traditional photography is in itself a way to denote what the key aim of the craft should be. It is here, in the linguistic details of the labels we use, that perhaps we could look for a clue to answer the never-ending question of whether or not the pursuit of truth through the lens of a camera can be considered an art form. While excluding the suffix -graphy (“to write” or “to draw,” from Greek) in favor of -journalism might indeed suggest the primacy of objective reporting over aesthetic choices, the relationship of documentarists with creativity cannot be left out of the picture (pun intended).
Cartier-Bresson became a master at capturing the surreal instants of everyday life, developing the timeless, voyeuristic style which influenced so many after him to go in search of “the decisive moment.” The constraints of realism, somehow, enhanced the narratives rather than caging them. It is apparent that we are walking on unsteady ground if we attempt to draw borders between art and crude storytelling, and while there are pioneers of conflict photography who have explicitly distanced themselves from the world of collectors and curators, others are giving their images new meaning in museum contexts.
James Nachtwey, a legend of photojournalism who has worked in some of the most disastrous regions of the planet – from Afghanistan, to Rwanda and El Salvador -, when interviewed by The Independent defined clearly his role as a photographer and his view on the journalistic practice “I am not intending to create art but rather to create a profound human communication… I suppose sometimes it might become art. It’s not my reason for being a photographer. […] I take pictures to create public awareness and from consciousness grows conscience.” Richard Mosse, on the other hand, is touring modern art establishments around the globe with his avant-garde captures of the refugee crisis taken with a thermographic camera, maintaining the spotlight on social issues with an extremely ingenious, innovative and creative body of work, but breaking away from from the label of “journalist” through influences such as Kafka and Picasso.
If the concept of art wasn’t abstract enough to define on its own, when it comes to photojournalism the romantic idea of men and women risking their lives to capture untold stories in dangerous corners of the world cannot be disassociated from the issues related to ethics and truthfulness. As Susan Sontag put it “people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance”; the aesthetics of suffering have long been at the heart of the debate on whether artistic talent should be rightfully employed to depict human hardship. Creativity can elevate an image, yet it might also distract the photographer from the honest, impartial position that he or she is expected to hold. Then again, what is neutrality? Framing, composing and shooting may seem spontaneous but for the expert photographer, they are the product of years of stylistic refinement.
Choices, although instinctive, are unavoidable. However, a split exists between photojournalists who follow a conceptual line of work and those who are sent to report on situations without a specific agenda in mind. Academics often consider this the dividing line: it’s the intention that makes the artist, a prerequisite that separates those who capture an event as it is happening from those approaching a subject in a more reflective manner. Fenton, one of the legends of photojournalism, is an example, and so is Robert Frank, who in 1955 set out for a journey across the United States to witness the living condition of different classes of society in post-war America. Frank shot 28,000 pictures in two years and then selected only 83 images for the publication of The Americans, a photobook which at its 60th anniversary is still making headlines for its impact in both popular culture and the art world.
Are all photojournalists artists? No, and they shouldn’t aim to be. Can photojournalism be a form of art? Yes, and it has proven to be many times over the course of the past century. The need to preserve a factful image of the world as we expect from journalists and the constraints of working on assignment might leave less room for creative expression, but they do not exclude aesthetic development or emotional involvement. The vague distinctions we attempt to make are quickly overshadowed by the power of those images that have stood the test of time. For as hard as art photography may be to define, perhaps what it ultimately comes down to is the ability to shape facts into a narrative so moving that it becomes universal.